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Challenges in land tenure and land reform in Africa:
An anthropological perspective

CID Working Paper No. 141

Keynote presentation to Workshop on Land Tenure, Land Reform and Land Use: Assessing the Linkages, Humboldt University, Berlin, May 2006

Pauline E. Peters

Center for International Development, Harvard University

March 2007

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Land policy reforms are once again on the agenda of many African governments and their supporting donors. Land reform has moved up and down the ladder of development priorities over the past fifty plus years. Older concerns with ensuring security of tenure, so encouraging investment and improving productivity of land are now joined – though often in uneasy tension – by newer imperatives for poverty reduction. Despite such shifts, the debates continue to turn on distinctions between statutory and customary law, formal and informal tenure systems, and, as the introductory essay (Sikor and Mueller) of this issue describes, state-led and community-led reform.

Anthropologists, among others, have contributed both to the formation of these dichotomies and to criticism of them. Following an historical thread, I highlight key contributions to the debates about land tenure and land reform. As a discipline, anthropology is best known for in its reliance on intensive fieldwork -- deep immersion in social situations and long-term involvement with social groups – which produces the rich ethnographies that have informed debates about land. Equally important has been the conceptual contribution by anthropologists -- critiques and rethinking of concepts, theories, and models used to discuss land.

The discussion moves through several formative and still significant phases of the “land debate” in Africa: the colonial period when land tenure became a major focus for officials and anthropologists; a resurgence of research on land in the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s when land reform became a development priority; research from the past decade revealing intensifying competition over land, new types of land transfers, the role of claims of indigeneity or autochthony in land conflicts, the intersection of competition over land with that over legitimate authority; and the challenges of growing social inequality and commodification of land to both analysis and land reform.

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